TSA expands duties beyond airport security

The Seattle Times

The New York Times
August 6, 2013

  Created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks, the TSA has grown to an agency of 56,000 people at U.S. airports

  Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads were started in 2005, in part as a reaction to the Madrid train bombing in2004 that killed 191 people. The program now has a $100 million annual budget and is growing, increasing to several hundred people and 37 teams last year, up from 10 teams in 2008.

  TSA records show that the teams ran more than 8000 unannounced checkpoints and search operations with local law enforcements outside of airports last year, including at the Indianapolis 500 and the Democratic and Republican national political conventions.- The New York Times


   WASHINGTON — As hundreds of commuters emerged from Amtrak and commuter trains at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station on a recent morning, an armed squad of men and women dressed in bulletproof vests made their way through the crowds.

  The squad was not with the Washington’s police department or Amtrak’s police force, but with one of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads — VIPR teams for short — tasked with performing random security sweeps to prevent terrorist attacks at transportation hubs across the United States.

  “The TSA, huh,” said Donald Neubauer of Greenville, Ohio, as he walked past the TSA squad at Union Station. “I thought they were just at the airports.”

  With little fanfare, the agency best known for airport screenings has vastly expanded its reach to sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and train stations. Not everyone is happy.

  TSA and local law-enforcement officials say the teams are a critical component of the nation’s counterterrorism efforts, but some members of Congress, auditors at the Department of Homeland Security and civil-liberties groups are sounding alarms.

  “Our mandate is to provide security and counterterrorism operations for all high-risk transportation targets, not just airports and aviation,” said John Pistole, the administrator of the agency. “The VIPR teams are a big part of that.”

  Civil-liberties groups say the VIPR teams have little to do with the agency’s original mission to provide security screenings at airports and that in some cases their actions amount to warrantless searches in violation of constitutional protections.

  “The problem with TSA stopping and searching people in public places outside the airport is that there are no real legal standards, or probable cause,” said Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

  TSA officials respond that the random searches are “special needs” or “administrative searches” that are exempt from probable cause because they further the government’s need to prevent terrorist attacks.

  The teams — which are typically composed of federal air marshals, explosives experts and baggage inspectors — move through crowds with bomb-sniffing dogs, randomly stop passengers and ask security questions.

  There is usually an undercover plainclothes member trained in behavioral detection who monitors crowds for suspicious behavior, said Kimberly Thompson, a TSA spokeswoman.

  TSA officials would not say if the VIPR teams had ever foiled a terrorist plot or thwarted any major threat to public safety, saying the information is classified.

  But they argue that the random searches and presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent that bolsters the public confidence.

  Security experts give the agency high marks for creating the VIPR teams.

  “They introduce an unexpected element into situations where a terrorist might be planning an attack,” said Rafi Ron, the former chief of security for Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, who is now a transportation security consultant.

  Local law-enforcement officials also welcome the teams.

  “We’ve found a lot of value in having these high-value security details,” said John Siqveland, a spokesman for Metro Transit, which operates buses and trains in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

  He said that local transit police have worked with VIPR teams on security patrols on the Metro rail line, which serves the Minnesota Vikings stadium, the Mall of America and the airport.

  Amtrak has had good experiences with VIPR team members who work with the Amtrak police on random bag inspections during high-travel times, said Kimberly Woods, a spokeswoman for Amtrak. “They supplement our security measures,” she said.

  But elsewhere, experiences with the teams have not been as positive.

  In 2011, the VIPR teams were criticized for screening and patting down people after they got off an Amtrak train in Savannah, Ga. As a result, the Amtrak police chief briefly banned the teams from the railroad’s property, saying the searches were illegal.

  In April 2012, during a joint operation with the Houston Police Department and the local transit police, people boarding and leaving city buses complained that TSA officers were stopping them and searching their bags. (Local law enforcement denied that the bags were searched.)

  The operation resulted in several arrests by the local transit police, mostly for passengers with warrants for prostitution and minor drug possession. Afterward, dozens of angry residents packed a public meeting with Houston transit officials to object to what they saw as an unnecessary intrusion by the TSA.

  “It was an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Robert Fickman, a local defense lawyer who attended the meeting. “Did we need to have TSA in here for a couple of minor busts?”

  Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, which has oversight of the TSA, said he generally supports the VIPR Teams, but remains concerned about the warrantless searches and the use of behavior-detection officers to profile individuals in crowds.

  “This is a gray area,” he said.